How One Hard-to-Spot Visual Detail Could Help Shape Voter Perceptions

The most interesting thing about the Democratic National Convention's logo isn't obvious at first -- but that doesn't mean it won't have impact.

The logo adorned props and promotional materials all over the convention. (Reuters)

The Obama campaign is famous for the quality of its visual imaging. In 2008, graphic design played a bigger role in introducing and selling the Democratic candidate than it had in any campaign in the past two decades. This year, one of the most striking visuals was on prominent display all last week: the Democratic National Convention's logo.

This logo, in fact, can tell us a surprising amount about the way the Democratic National Committee is positioning the party going into the election.

To begin with, the Obama "O" -- which has given rise to a number of Democratic visuals, such as the D inside a circle the party uses -- was used as basis of the Convention logo's design:


By borrowing design language from the Obama campaign, the DNC is tying the party the candidate. The graphics for the RNC in Tampa and the Romney-Ryan campaign did not display such a high degree of similarity.

But the most interesting thing about the logo is the way it uses silhouette. Silhouette is, among other things, a way of suggesting features like age, sex, and race without having to definitively assign them. Why? Because, while we can correctly determine factors like gender and age from profiles in silhouette more often than not, our perceptions aren't perfectly accurate. Have you ever had the feeling when looking at a silhouette that you might have a good idea what the figure looks like, but that you can't be positive? The DNC logo evokes that feeling on purpose.

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Consider, for instance, the silhouette with the most specifically defined features (a result of the fact that it's the only one in full profile). If you had to guess the age and gender of the person, what would you say?

To some, this silhouette might suggest an elderly woman. The figure appears to be wearing glasses; if you look very close, it has a receding mouth! But if you consider the figure carefully, you can't say for absolute certain if it's elderly or a woman. That initial impression was fair, but you can't call it more than just an impression.

Some online commenters have raised the possibility that the middle silhouette is the president. A close-up is below. Similar-looking hairstyle, but it's impossible to tell whether it is or isn't supposed to "be" Obama. If it is a deliberate gesture, it's interesting that this Obama-like figure appears to have his arm around the child on his right in a paternal or protective gesture.

This sort of difficult-to-pin down covert messaging has been around for years in political campaigns, because it's effective. Wrote a pair of psychological researchers in 2008:

Networks of associations of this sort are implicit. People may be unaware of which networks are active at any given time and of the way various persuasive appeals affect them. Recent neuroimaging data have related this issue directly to political judgments, indicating that emotion-processing circuits are active whereas "reasoning" circuits are relatively inactive when partisans are presented with politically threatening information.

There's also evidence for the converse of this: that emotion-processing circuits activate when partisans are presented with information that supports their political views (although the effect of this positive information appears to be weaker than that of negative). It would make sense, then, that Democrats would react positively when viewing an Obama-like figure in a protective posture.

So why silhouettes? As the examples above suggest, it's possible to perceive both individual characteristics and broad similarities in a silhouetted figure. We see the specific with one glance and the general with another. Seeking unity on the one hand while acknowledging difference on the other is philosophically important for many on the left (see e.g. multiculturalism). The logo does a good job of representing that duality.

In general, the design gets across values of inclusiveness and unity. The figures appear diverse but aren't too strictly differentiated, and the O serves as a symbol of wholeness. The slickness of the graphic evokes the idea of digital age democracy. In fact, it arguably does this better than the current Democratic National Committee logo, which was trashed by critics in the advertising industry for looking more like a social media website logo than a political one.

While these Democratic design revamps have partly targeted young people, it's worth noting that, unlike in 2008 -- when both official and unofficial Obama graphics went viral across the web -- neither the Obama campaign nor the DNC has had an image go viral this year. Maybe that has to do with a drop in youth enthusiasm about Obama. Young people tend to participate most in social media, and by now that's the main medium for transmitting viral images. But, in the classic words of Facebook, when it comes to what people want to promote, "it's complicated."